Daniel Glover: Policy Storms of the Century





Meteorologically speaking, the hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29 died days later in the northern part of the continent. Politically speaking, Katrina is very much alive, and its eye has settled over Washington for the foreseeable future.

Shortly after the storm, Congress cleared two emergency spending bills totaling more than $60 billion. And lawmakers, as is typical, are also trying to make sure that their pet policy ideas ride the hurricane-induced legislative wave moving through the capital. But the real test of Katrina's staying power will be whether the storm spawns substantive changes in federal disaster mitigation, just as its most infamous atmospheric siblings have done in the past.

Throughout history, hurricanes have captured the attention of government leaders, and President William McKinley was chief among them. Raymond Arsenault, a historian at the University of South Florida, recently noted on the History News Network (hnn.us) that the near-annihilation of Cedar Key, Fla., and the deaths of more than 100 people in an 1896 hurricane made a lasting impression on McKinley -- one that eventually influenced his military strategy.

"I am more afraid of West Indian hurricanes than I am of the entire Spanish navy," McKinley said at the start of the Spanish-American War some two years later. That fear inspired the president to order the creation of a hurricane warning system designed to protect vessels in the Caribbean Sea.

Congress, for its part, has long been responding to hurricanes and other disasters by providing monetary relief. In a 1950 document printed in the Congressional Record, Rep. Harold Hagen, R-Minn., charted such federal aid back to 1803. Lawmakers have provided aid in the wake of everything from"Indian depredations" in the mid-1800s, to"grasshopper ravages" in the 1870s, to the kinds of disasters more familiar today: tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and hurricanes.

The earliest hurricane-related federal spending that Hagen recorded came in 1928, after a September storm hit Puerto Rico. Congress provided $8.1 million to rehabilitate agriculture and schoolhouses and to purchase seeds. Two years later, lawmakers allocated $1 million to cover repair work by the Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief Commission, and they gave the commission loan breaks in 1935. Another $5 million went toward forest rehabilitation in New England after a hurricane struck there in September 1938.

Not every disaster has been what Claire Rubin, a disaster research consultant and the co-author of the Disaster Time Line on the Internet (www.disaster-timeline.com), calls a"defining event." In fact, no defining events occurred until well into the 20th century.

Even the Category 4 hurricane that swamped Galveston Island off Texas in 1900, killing at least 6,000 people, failed to push the federal government into the disaster-mitigation business. Although Congress did react to that tragedy, according to Casey Greene, the head of special collections at Galveston's Rosenberg Library, lawmakers merely funded extensions of the seawall, in part to protect federal military reservations. Funding for the extensions was authorized in installments from 1904 through 1950, Greene said in an e-mail exchange with National Journal.

Other major hurricanes, including Category 4 storms in 1909, 1915, and 1928, made landfall in the early decades of the century. Yet not until the massive flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927 did lawmakers start thinking they could do more to protect Americans from"acts of God." They passed the 1928 Flood Control Act, which gave the federal government authority over flood control on the Mississippi and moved from a levee-only system to one based on dams and reservoirs....

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